‘Knowing Nature’ – Science vs. Direct Experience – Iron by Primo Levi (from The Periodic Table)

[edit: sorry everyone! I wrote ‘Polish concentration camp Auschwitz’, which has been interpreted as saying that the camp was run by the Polish people. That is not what I meant, I simply meant the geographical location. However, I now see how the more common interpretation would be the incorrect one, so I have removed the reference to Poland.]

At the same time, out of unconscious gratitude, and perhaps also out of a desire to get even, he in turn took an interest in my education and made it clear to me that it had gaps. I might even be right: it might be that Matter is our teacher and perhaps also, for lack of something better, our political school; but he had another form of matter to lead me to, another teacher: not the powders of the Analytical Lab but the true, authentic, timeless Urstoff, the rocks and ice of the nearby mountains. He proved to me without too much difficulty that I didn’t have the proper credentials to talk about matter. What commerce, what intimacy had I had, until then, with Empedocles’ four elements? Did I know how to light a stove? Wade across a torrent? Was I familiar with a storm high up in the mountains? The sprouting of seeds? No. So he too had something vital to teach me.


The following is the chapter Iron from Primo Levi’s autobiography The Periodic Table. This book was my first introduction to Primo Levi. For those who are unfamiliar with him, Primo was a chemist and writer, born in Italy in 1919 and of Jewish descent, and was sent to the concentration camp Auschwitz in 1944. He spent 11 months there before the Red Army liberated the camp. His book If This is a Man (translated in US to Surviving Auschwitz) details his survival in the camp, while a second novel, The Truce (translated in US to The Reawakening), details his journey from Auschwitz back to Italy. The Periodic Table is a collection of short stories, each of which is inspired by an element from the Periodic Table (not the entire Periodic Table, just some of the elements), and is supposed to detail an aspect of his life. In 2006, the Royal Institution of Great Britain named it the best science book ever.

I would tend to disagree with the Royal Institution, if only because I found half of the book pretty dull and boring. The other half was pretty great though. Specifically, I really love his story named after the element Iron. This story is about his time as a student in Chemistry, something of which myself and Kurt Vonnegut share, and about his love for science and nature. While Primo originally believes that by studying and doing Chemistry he is getting to ‘know’ nature and the universe, it is a friend of his (a friend with a sad fate) who introduces Primo to the world of alpinism and rock climbing and hiking, and shows him the other half of the equation for ‘understanding’ the world. This is obviously a very personal account for which I feel very close, as I had a very similar educational career choice, for similar reasons, and later came to discover ‘the other puzzle piece’ to knowing the universe, this personal relationship with nature and the land. Anyways, I thought I’d share it with everyone, as I don’t know how many people would be exposed to this story otherwise. Enjoy.

Night lay beyond the walls of the Chemical Institute, the night of Europe: Chamberlain had returned from Munich duped, Hitler had marched into Prague without firing a shot, Franco had subdued Barcelona and was ensconced in Madrid. Fascist Italy, the small-time pirate, had occupied Albania, and the premonition of imminent catastrophe condensed like grumous dew in the houses and streets, in wary conversations and dozing consciences.
But the night did not penetrate those thick walls; Fascist censorship itself, the regime’s masterwork, kept us shut off from the world, in a white, anesthetized limbo. About thirty of us had managed to surmount the harsh barrier of the first exams and had been admitted to the second year’s Qualitative Analysis laboratory. We had entered that enormous, dark, smoky hall like someone who, coming into the House of the Lord, reflects on each of his steps. The previous lab, where I had tackled zinc, seemed an infantile exercise to us now, similar to when as children we had played at cooking: something, by hook or crook, in one way or another, always came of it, perhaps too little, perhaps not very pure, but you really had to be a hopeless case or pigheaded not to get magnesium sulfate from magnesite, or potassium bromide from bromine.
Not here: here the affair had turned serious, the confrontation with Mother-Matter, our hostile mother, was tougher and closer. At two in the afternoon, Professor D., with his ascetic and distracted air, handed each of us precisely one gram of a certain powder: by the next day we had to complete the qualitative analysis, that is, report what metals and non-metals it contained. Report in writing, like a police report, only yes and no, because doubts and hesitations were not admissible: it was each time a choice, a deliberation, a mature and responsible undertaking, for which Fascism had not prepared us, and from which emanated a good smell, dry and clean.
Some elements, such as iron and copper, were easy and direct, incapable of concealment; others, such as bismuth and cadmium, were deceptive and elusive. There was a method, a toilsome, age- old plan for systematic research, a kind of combined steamroller and fine-toothed comb which nothing (in theory) could escape, but I preferred to invent each time a new road, with swift, extemporaneous forays, as in a war of movement, instead of the deadly grind of a war of position. Sublimate mercury into droplets, transform sodium into chloride, and identify it as trough-shaped chips under my microscope. One way or another, here the relationship with Matter changed, became dialectical: it was fencing, a face-to-face match. Two unequal opponents: on one side, putting the questions, the unfledged, unarmed chemist, at his elbow the textbook by Autenrieth as his sole ally (because D., often called to help out in difficult cases, maintained a scrupulous neutrality, refused to give an opinion: a wise attitude, since whoever opens his mouth can put his foot in it, and professors are not supposed to do that); on the other side, responding with enigmas, stood Matter, with her sly passivity, ancient as the All and portentously rich in deceptions, as solemn and subtle as the Sphinx. I was just beginning to read German words and was enchanted by the word Urstoff (which means “element”: literally, “primal substance”) and by the prefix Ur which appeared in it and which in fact expresses ancient origin, remote distance in space and time.
In this place, too, nobody wasted many words teaching us how to protect ourselves from acids, caustics, fires, and explosions; it appeared that the Institute’s rough and ready morality counted on the process of natural selection to pick out those among us most qualified for physical and professional survival. There were few ventilation hoods; each student, following his text’s prescriptions, in the course of systematic analysis, conscientiously let loose into the air a good dose of hydrochloric acid and ammonia, so that a dense, hoary mist of ammonium chloride stagnated permanently in the lab, depositing minute scintillating crystals on the windowpanes. Into the hydrogen sulfide room with its murderous atmosphere withdrew couples seeking privacy and a few lone wolves to eat their snacks.
Through the murk and in the busy silence, we heard a Piedmontese voice say: “Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus ferrum.” “I announce to you a great joy. We have iron.” It was March 1939, and a few days earlier an almost identical solemn announcement (“Habemus Papam”) had closed the conclave that had raised to Peter’s Throne Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, in whom many put their hopes, since one must after all put one’s hope in someone or something. The blasphemous announcement came from Sandro, the quiet one.
In our midst, Sandro was a loner. He was a boy of medium height, thin but muscular, who never wore an overcoat, even on the coldest days. He came to class in worn corduroy knickers, knee socks made of homespun wool and sometimes a short black cape which made me think of the Tuscan poet Renato Fucini. He had large, calloused hands, a bony, rugged profile, a face baked by the sun, a low forehead beneath the line of his hair, which he wore very short and cut in a brush. He walked with the peasant’s long, slow stride.
A few months before, the racial laws against the Jews had been proclaimed, and I too was becoming a loner. My Christian classmates were civil people; none of them, nor any of the teachers, had directed at me a hostile word or gesture, but I could feel them withdraw and, following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well: every look exchanged between me and them was accompanied by a minuscule but perceptible flash of mistrust and suspicion. What do you think of me? What am I for you? The same as six months ago, your equal who does not go to Mass, or the Jew who, as Dante put it, “in your midst laughs at you”?
I had noticed with amazement and delight that something was happening between Sandro and me. It was not at all a friendship born from affinity; on the contrary, the difference in our origins made us rich in “ exchangeable goods,” like two merchants who meet after coming from remote and mutually unknown regions. Nor was it the normal, portentous intimacy of twenty-year-olds: with Sandro I never reached this point. I soon realized that he was generous, subtle, tenacious, and brave, even with a touch of insolence, but he had an elusive, untamed quality; so that, although we were at the age when one always has the need, instinct, and immodesty of inflicting on one another everything that swarms in one’s head and elsewhere (and this is an age that can last long, but ends with the first compromise), nothing had gotten through his carapace of reserve, nothing of his inner world, which nevertheless one felt was dense and fertile— nothing save a few occasional, dramatically truncated hints. He had the nature of a cat with whom one can live for decades without ever being permitted to penetrate its sacred pelt.
We had many concessions to make to each other. I told him we were like cation and anion, but Sandro did not seem to acknowledge the comparison. He was born in Serra d’Ivrea, a beautiful but niggardly region. He was the son of a mason and spent his summers working as a shepherd. Not a shepherd of souls: a shepherd of sheep, and not because of Arcadian rhetoric or eccentricity, but happily, out of love for the earth and grass and an abundance of heart. He had a curious mimetic talent, and when he talked about cows, chickens, sheep, and dogs he was transformed, imitating their way of looking, their movements and voices, becoming very gay and seeming to turn into an animal himself, like a shaman. He taught me about plants and animals, but said very little about his family. His father had died when he was a child; they were simple, poor people, and since (he boy was bright, they had decided to make him study so that he would bring money home: he had accepted this with Pied- montese seriousness but without enthusiasm. He had traveled the long route of high school—liceo—aiming at the highest marks with the least effort. He was not interested in Catullus and Descartes, he was interested in being promoted, and spending Sunday on his skis and climbing the rocks. He had chosen chemistry because he had thought it better than other studies; it was a trade that dealt with things one can see and touch, a way to earn one’s bread less tiring than working as a carpenter or a peasant.
We began studying physics together, and Sandro was surprised when I tried to explain to him some of the ideas that at the time I was confusedly cultivating. That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed! That if one looked for the bridge, the missing link,
between the world of words and the world of things, one did not have to look far: it was there, in our Autenrieth, in our smoke-filled labs, and in our future trade.
And finally, and fundamentally, an honest and open boy, did he not smell the stench of Fascist truths which tainted the sky? Did he not perceive it as an ignominy that a thinking man should be asked to believe without thinking? Was he not filled with disgust at all the dogmas, all the unproved affirmations, all the imperatives? He did feel it; so then, how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our study, how could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidote to Fascism which he and I were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers?
Sandro listened to me with ironical attention, always ready to deflate me with a couple of civil and terse words when I trespassed into rhetoric. But something was ripening in him (certainly not all my doing; those were months heavy with fateful events), something that troubled him because it was at once new and ancient. He, who until then had read only Salgari, Jack London, and Kipling, overnight became a furious reader: he digested and remembered everything, and everything in him spontaneously fell into place as a way of life; together with this, he began to study, and his average shot up from C to A. At the same time, out of unconscious gratitude, and perhaps also out of a desire to get even, he in turn took an interest in my education and made it clear to me that it had gaps. I might even be right: it might be that Matter is our teacher and perhaps also, for lack of something better, our political school; but he had another form of matter to lead me to, another teacher: not the powders of the Analytical Lab but the true, authentic, timeless Urstoff, the rocks and ice of the nearby mountains. He proved to me without too much difficulty that I didn’t have the proper credentials to talk about matter. What commerce, what intimacy had I had, until then, with Empedocles’ four elements? Did I know how to light a stove? Wade across a torrent? Was I familiar with a storm high up in the mountains? The sprouting of seeds? No. So he too had something vital to teach me.
A comradeship was born, and there began for me a feverish season. Sandro seemed to be made of iron, and he was bound to iron by an ancient kinship: his father’s fathers, he told me, had been tinkers (magnín) and blacksmiths in the Canavese valleys: they made nails on the charcoal forges, sheathed wagon wheels with red-hot hoops, pounded iron plates until deafened by the noise; and he himself when he saw the red vein of iron in the rock felt he was meeting a friend. In the winter when it suddenly hit him, he would tie his skis on his rusty bike, leaving early in the morning and pedaling away until he reached the snow, without a cent, an artichoke in one pocket and the other full of lettuce; then he came back in the evening or even the next day, sleeping in haylofts, and the more storms and hunger he suffered the happier and healthier he was.
In the summer, when he went off by himself, he often took along a dog to keep him company. This was a small yellow mongrel with a downcast expression; in fact, as Sandro had told me, acting out in his way the animal episode, as a puppy he had had a mishap with a cat. He had come too close to a litter of newborn kittens, the mother cat was miffed and became enraged, and had begun to hiss, getting all puffed up; but the puppy had not yet learned the meaning of those signals and remained there like a fool. The cat had attacked him, chased him, caught him, and scratched his nose; the dog had been permanently traumatized. He felt dishonored, and so Sandro had made him a cloth ball, explained to him that it was the cat, and every morning presented it to him so that he could take his revenge on it for the insult and regain his canine honor. For the same therapeutic motive, Sandro took him to the mountains, so he could have some fun: he tied him to one end of a rope, tied himself to the other, set the dog firmly on a rock ledge, and then climbed up; when the rope ended, he pulled it up slowly, and the dog had learned to walk up with his muzzle pointed skywards and his four paws against the nearly vertical wall of rock, moaning softly as though he were dreaming.
Sandro climbed the rocks more by instinct than technique, trusting to the strength of his hands and saluting ironically, in the projecting rock to which he clung, the silicon, calcium, and magnesium he had learned to recognize in the course on mineralogy. He seemed to feel that he had wasted a day if he had not in some way gotten to the bottom of his reserve of energy, and then even his eyes became brighter and he explained to me that, with a sedentary life, a deposit of fat forms behind the eyes, which is not healthy; by working hard the fat is consumed and the eyes sink back into their sockets and become keener.
He spoke grudgingly about his exploits. He did not belong to that species of persons who do things in order to talk about them (like me); he did not like high-sounding words, indeed words. It appeared that in speaking, as in mountain climbing, he had never received lessons; he spoke as no one speaks, saying only the core of things.
If necessary he carried a thirty-kilo pack, but usually he traveled without it; his pockets were sufficient, and in them he put some vegetables, as I have said, a chunk of bread, a pocketknife, sometimes the dog-eared Alpine Club guide, and a skein of wire for emergency repairs. In fact he did not carry the guide because he believed in it, but for the opposite reason. He rejected it because he felt that it shackled him; not only that, he also saw it as a bastard creature, a detestable hybrid of snow and rock mixed up with paper. He took it into the mountains to vilify. Happy if he could catch it in an error, even if it was at his and his climbing companion’s expense. He could walk for two days without eating, or eat three meals all together and then leave. For him , all seasons were good. In the winter he skied, but not at the well- equipped, fashionable slopes, which he shunned with laconic scorn: too poor to buy ourselves the sealskin strips for the ascents, he showed me how you sew on rough hemp cloths, Spartan devices which absorb the water and then freeze like codfish, and must be tied around your waist when you ski downhill. He dragged me along on exhausting treks through the fresh snow, far from any sign of human life, following routes that he seemed to intuit like a savage. In the summer, from shelter to shelter, inebriating ourselves with the nun, the effort, and the wind, and scraping the skin of our fingertips on rocks never before touched by human hands: but not on the famous peaks, nor in quest of memorable feats; such things did not matter to him at all. What mattered was to know his limitations, to test and improve himself; more obscurely, he felt the need to prepare himself (and to prepare me) for an iron future, drawing closer month by month.
To see Sandro in the mountains reconciled you to the world and made you forget the nightmare weighing on Europe. This was his place, what he had been made for, like the marmots whose whistle and snout he imitated: in the mountains he became happy, with a silent, infectious happiness, like a light that is switched on. He aroused a new communion with the earth and sky, into which flowed my need for freedom, the plenitude of my strength, and a hunger to understand the things he had pushed me toward. We would come out at dawn, rubbing our eyes, through the small door of the Martinotti bivouac, and there, all around us, barely touched by the sun, stood the white and brown mountains, new as if created during the night that had just ended and at the same time innumerably ancient. They were an island, an elsewhere.
In any event, it was not always necessary to go high and far. In the in-between seasons Sandro’s kingdom was the rock gymnasiums. There are several, two or three hours by bike from Turin, and I would be curious to know whether they are still frequented: the Straw Stack Pinnacles with the Wolkmann Tower, the Teeth of Cumiana, Patanüa Rock (which means Hare Rock), the Plô, the Sbarüa, and others, with their homely, modest names. The last, the Sbarüa, I think was discovered by Sandro himself and a mythical brother of his whom Sandro never let me see but who, from his few scanty hints, must have stood in the same relationship to him as he stood to the run of humanity. Sbarüa is a noun from the verb sbarüé, which means “to terrify”; the Sbarüa is a prism of granite that towers about a hundred meters above a modest hill bristling with brambles and a brushwood coppice; like Dante’s Veglio di Creta—the Old Man of Crete—it is split from base to summit by a fissure that gets narrower as it rises, finally forcing the climber to come out on the rock face itself, where, precisely, he is terrified, and where at that time there was just a single piton, charitably left behind by Sandro’s brother.
Those were curious places, frequented by a few dozen amateurs of our stamp, all of whom Sandro knew either by name or sight: we climbed up, not without technical problems, and surrounded by the irritating buzz of enormous bluebottle flies attracted by our sweat, crawling up good solid rock walls interrupted by grassy ledges where ferns and strawberries grew or, in the fall, blackberries: often enough we used as holds the trunks of puny little trees, rooted in the cracks, and after a few hours we reached the peak, which was not a peak at all but mostly placid pastureland where cows stared at us with indifferent eyes. Then we descended at breakneck speed, in a few minutes, along paths strewn with old and recent cow dung, to recover our bikes.
At other times our exploits were more demanding; never any quiet jaunts, since Sandro said that we would have plenty of time when we were forty to look at the scenery. “Let’s go, shall we?” he said to me one day in February—which in his language meant that, since the weather was good, we should leave in the afternoon for the winter climb of the Tooth of M., which for some weeks had been one of our projects. We slept in an inn and left the next day, not too early, at some undetermined hour (Sandro did not like watches: he felt their quiet continuous admonishment to be an arbitrary intrusion). We plunged boldly into the fog and came out of it about one o’clock, in gleaming sunlight and on the big crest of a peak which was not the right one.
I then said that we should be able to go down about a hundred meters, cross over halfway up the mountain, and go up along the next ridge: or, better yet, since we were already there, continue climbing and be satisfied with the wrong peak, which in any case was only forty meters lower than the right one. But Sandro, with splendid bad faith, said in a few dense syllables that my last proposal was fine, but from there “by way of the easy northwest ridge” (this was a sarcastic quotation from the above mentioned Alpine Club guide) we could also reach the Tooth of M. in half an hour; and what was the point of being twenty if you couldn’t permit yourself the luxury of taking the wrong route.
The easy ridge must really have been easy, indeed elementary in the summer; but we found it in a very discomforting state. The rock was wet on the side facing the sun and covered with a black layer of ice in the shade; between one large outcrop of rock and another lay pockets of melting snow into which we sank to our waists. We reached the top at five; I dragged myself along so pitifully that it was painful, while Sandro was seized by a sinister hilarity that I found very annoying.
“And how do we get down?”
“As for getting down, we shall see,” he replied, and added mysteriously: “The worst that can happen is to have to taste bear meat.” Well, we tasted bear meat in the course of that night, which seemed very, very long. We got down in two hours, helped badly by the rope, which was frozen; it had become a malignant, rigid tangle that snagged on each projection and rang against the rock face like the cable of a funicular. At seven we were on the bank of a frozen pond and it was dark. We ate the little that was left, built a useless dry stone wall facing the wind, and lay down on the ground to sleep, pressed to each other. It was as though time itself had frozen; every so often we got to our feet to reactivate our circulation, and it was always the same time: the wind never stopped blowing, there was always the same ghost of a moon, always at the same point in the sky, and in front of the moon passed a fantastic cavalcade of tattered clouds, always the same. We had taken off our shoes, as described in Lammer’s books, so dear to Sandro, and we kept our feet in our packs; at the first funereal light, which seemed to seep from the snow and not the sky, we rose with our limbs benumbed and our eyes glittering from lack of sleep, hunger, and the hardness of our bed. And we found our shoes so frozen that they rang like bells, and to get them on we had to hatch them out like brood hens.
But we went back down to the valley under our own steam; and to the innkeeper who asked us, with a snicker, how things had gone, and meanwhile was staring at our wild, exalted faces, we answered flippantly that we had had an excellent outing, then paid the bill and departed with dignity. This was it—the bear meat; and now that many years have passed, I regret that I ate so little of it, for nothing has had, even distantly, the taste of that meat, which is the taste of being strong and free, free also to make mistakes and be the master of one’s destiny. That is why I am grateful to Sandro for having led me consciously into trouble, on that trip and other undertakings which were only apparently foolish, and I am certain that they helped me later on.
They didn’t help Sandro, or not for long. Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, the first man to be killed fighting in the Resistance with the Action Party’s Piedmontese Military Command. After a few months of extreme tension, in April of 1944 he was captured by the Fascists, did not surrender, and tried to escape from the Fascist Party house in Cuneo. He was killed with a tommygun burst in the back of the neck by a monstrous child-executioner, one of those wretched murderers of fifteen whom Mussolini’s Republic of Salò recruited in the reformatories. His body was abandoned in the road for a long time, because the Fascists had forbidden the population to bury him.
Today I know that it is a hopeless task to try to dress a man in words, make him live again on the printed page, especially a man like Sandro. He was not the sort of person you can tell stories about, nor to whom one erects monuments-he who laughed at all monuments: he lived completely in his deeds, and when they were over nothing of him remains-nothing but words, precisely.


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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6 Responses to ‘Knowing Nature’ – Science vs. Direct Experience – Iron by Primo Levi (from The Periodic Table)

  1. Stephen Stelmaszuk says:

    If you are going to write a blog you should research first.There was no such a thing as a Polish Concentration Camp.These were built and run by German Nazi’s please ammend this distortion of the truth.Thank You.

    • dontdontoperate says:

      Sorry everyone! I didn’t actually mean to insinuate that the Polish people set up the concentration camps. I just meant that Auschwitz was located in Poland. Sorry!

  2. Iwona says:

    There were no “Polish” camps at Auschwitz or anywhere else. The camps were created and operated by Germans on territory they invaded and occupied. The first victims were Polish Christians. Please refrains from muddling the facts of who were the victims and the perpetrators!

    • thom says:


      First they came for the communists,
      Then they came for the socialists,
      Then they came for the trade unionists,
      Then they came for the Jews,
      Then they came for the Catholics,

  3. There were no ‘Polish concentration camps’ The German Nazis established the concentration camps on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

  4. jniech says:

    Thanks for the correction. Anything up to half of all Polish citizens were murdered, deported, raped, imprisoned and similar. The rest knew many who were. It makes us sensitivity. I wish you and yours the best.

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